In theory, outdoor music festivals sound like the greaterest thing ever, but when you consider all the extra hassles and everything that can go wrong, you have to question why a reasonable promoter would even risk trying to pull one off. And the first is the hardest storm to weather—you still hear folks muttering about how much dust and horseshit they kicked up at the inaugural Coachella. And so on we approached the first Arthurfest—put on by Jay Babcock of the delightful Arthur music mag—hopeful but unsure of what to expect.
We missed the first day of Arthurfest because of holiday weekend familial obligations (dim sum, Elysian Park, the King Tut exhibit), and early reports complained of predictable problems—gates opening late, bad sound, long lines for expensive food, etc. But when we showed up at the venue we immediately ditched our pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt for a “FUCK THE HATERS” tee.
Held at the Barnsdall Art Park at the border of Los Feliz and Little Armenia, the festival was situated on the top of a hill with great views of LA proper. The sky was blue, the smog was clear and a nice breeze was blowing. The vibes were straight art school spring fling.
And since we were feeling fine like it was 1999, it was appropriate that the first band we saw was the reunion touring Olivia Tremor Control at the larger Lawn Stage. The sound was actually on the not-so-good side, but that didn’t deter the boys as they pulled out a violin, trumpet, tuba and some of the most energetic banjo playing we’ve ever seen, to augment their indie psych pop. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t show, as many had hoped he would, but we kept a smile on our face.
We then made the three minute walk to the smaller Pine Stage where Marissa Nadler’s set was already underway. Introducing her next song as a poem by Pablo Neruda, we decided to watch her velvet-dressed pretty princess set while sitting on the grass.
During the break before Vetiver we saw a skinny beardo with dark curly hair and ridiculous clothes walk by with a lady wearing a cacophonously jangly metal waist adornment. We figured it was Devendra Banhart, who had already been confirmed as the night’s secret surprise guest. But two minutes later the real Devendra came ambling by. Who was that other guy? His intern?
Both Banhart and Andy Cabic of Vetiver have ditched their ratty T-shirt or topless look, opting for a more refined Workingman’s Dead/Music From The Big Pink appearance—long hair, long-sleeve button-ups rolled to the elbows, and vests that match their slacks. THEY LOOKED AWESOME. Banhart joined the Vet for the first half of their set, knocking out “Oh Papa” from their self-titled debut before the group went into some new upbeat boogie (with drums! and bass!) to combat the bleed over from Comets On Fire on the mainstage. Then the blue-blockered band mellowed it out for the rest of their time.
Heading back over to the Lawn Stage, the Juan MacLean was busy soundchecking, but once they got their shit correct, they came correct, bringing possibly the best show of the day. We were right next to this awesome six foot glamazon gal with wide hips and a striped shirt who was busting the raddest interpretive moves straight out of Modern Dance 101. The crowd was a little sparse, but everyone who was there was majorly feeling it. Indie rock raves, where are you when we need you?
We then continued bouncing back and forth between the stages, catching the tail end of Banhart’s set with his Hairy Fairy band and watching Spoon do their thing. (There was also a smaller, indoor venue where the fest’s heavier, noise-oriented bands were playing, but we heard it was impossible to get in, and the weather was too nice to sit in air-conditioning.) Now we have a lot of love in our hearts for Cat Power and for Arthurfest, but during Chan Marshall’s set the limitations of both became apparent. The Pine Stage itself was barely a foot off the ground and the view of it was further impeded by the columns of the gallery whose entrance the artists were playing in, the lighting rigs, a camera platform for the inevitable documentary, several pine trees, and hella people. If the performer was sitting, they became virtually impossible to see if you weren’t front and center. And Marshall spent the majority of her set facing a piano.
Cat Power’s maudlin piano ballads can be brilliant and beautiful, but when hearing, say, eight of them in succession it’s as fun as drowning a bag of kittens. We’re not advocating for her to play to the crowd, because that goes against a large part of Marshall’s peculiar charm, but in-between two numbers she said, “Here’s the same song, but with different lyrics.” We’re glad somebody said it and we’re glad that it wasn’t us.
For the finale, we made our final trip to Lawn Stage. Before headliner Yoko Ono appeared they projected her rarely shown Film No. 5, which basically was this shot
accompanied by nature sounds. We came in late, so we had trouble following the plot for the final 20 minutes we saw. Then they played a film about Ono’s Onochord project (volunteers had passed out hundreds of keychain flashlights so everyone could relay the “I LOVE YOU” message). Once the projection screen was raised, Ono’s band (including her son Sean Lennon and Money Mark) cut their way through another white screen before entering the stage. After Ono made her way to the microphone with a sack over her head they played songs including “Rising”, “Walking On Thin Ice” and the encore “Don’t Worry Kyoko”—which she said she hadn’t performed since 1972.
Then it was all over, so we made our way down the hill, flashing the Onochord message of I LOVE YOU to friends, strangers, the clean up crew, the Barnsdall Art Park, trees, cars, stoplights, and Fat Burger. We especially love you Fat Burger.